After facing criminal charges for serving food that caused more than 1,100 people across the United States to contract norovirus, Chipotle Mexican Grill has agreed to pay a record $25 million fine to resolve the charges involving food-safety violations. Additionally, the company has signed a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), assuring it will not face a criminal conviction as long as it satisfies the terms of the DPA over the next three years.
The Department of Justice noted that five of Chipotle’s locations were cited for not adhering to the public health sanitation standards, which led to hundreds of sickness outbreaks traced back to the company. Under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the US. Department of Justice indicted the company for its negligent actions and lax oversight.
“This settlement represents an acknowledgment of how seriously Chipotle takes food safety every day and is an opportunity to definitively turn the page on past events and focus on serving our customers real food made with real ingredients that they can enjoy with confidence,” Brian Niccol, Chipotle’s chairman and CEO, said in a prepared release.
Donald A. Shindler, a food and hospitality industry transactional attorney who serves as co-chair of Clark Hill PLC’s national food, beverage, and hospitality industry team, said this landmark agreement was a culmination of more than four years of Chipotle’s shortfalls in enforcing its food handling, delivery, and safety standards and requirements. “It is doubtful that the then-existing company food safety standards were materially at fault but the training of supervisory decision-making personnel at local levels and consistent enforcement of those standards and requirements were not handled consistently or well,” he says. “This settlement allows Chipotle to avoid both the stigma and bad public relations of a conviction, as well as likely not violating any loan covenants for existing financing arrangements or compliance requirements relating to the operation of its business and registration issues involving its stock.”
Laurie Beyranevand, director of the Center for Agriculture and Food Systems at Vermont Law School, notes that it’s often difficult for FDA to trace foodborne illnesses back to a specific source but, when it’s clear that violations with significant public health consequences have occurred and they can pinpoint the source of those violations, the agency has indicated its intent to actively prosecute. “Because this case involved transmission of norovirus due to a combination of factors—employees not feeling able to call out sick due to company policies coupled with inadequate food safety protocols—the timing couldn’t be better for FDA to send a message to companies about the importance of reducing the risk of communicable diseases,” she says.
According to Shindler, this settlement provides a clear warning for all restaurant chains—especially the classic fast food and quick-serve restaurant models—to ensure continuous compliance with training and enforcement of government-mandated food safety standards. “I suspect that the next wave of Department of Justice prosecutions may face a tougher time settling on favorable terms considering this warning to the industry,” he said.
“This also has the desired warning effect for companies to take a deeper and more insightful analyses of their own operations and standards,” he adds.